Do You Remember A Time Before Streaming?

Do you remember when “Netflix & Chill” became a common phrase in our language? Apparently, its first recorded use was only in 2009, about two years after Netflix started its Streaming service having begun life as a postal-based DVD rental company.

DVD’s—remember those?

I say “only” 2009, but that was 13 years ago now. Time really does fly, doesn’t it? And the speed at which the world has changed since the turn of the millennium doesn’t seem to be slowing down either.

When you think about it, it’s remarkable quite how much the landscape for consuming media, be that video or music, has changed since Netflix first launched its streaming service. I still remember a time when in the UK we only had four television channels—I remember the launch of Sky’s services on the Astra Satellite too—and now not only do we have dozens of TV channels broadcast “over the air” without the need for a dish, but hundreds more channels you can pick up with a dish.

But who actually watches “linear” TV, these days? Not me—well, not often, anyway. Certainly not in the same way I did when the only other option was to set the video recorder or rent a VHS.

I first moved to Northampton in the summer of 1999. That’s the point I really considered having “left home”—the four years I was at university not really counting in my book. When we moved in we had what was then NTL cable hooked up to the television in the lounge (they also provided our telephone) along with the video recorder (and a bookshelf full of films on VHS). If we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss a show when we were out, we had to set the video to record it. And we could only record one show at a time. It was possible to watch one channel and record another, but not if both those channels were only available from the cable set-top box.

And don’t even get me started on recording shows you wanted to watch if you were on holiday and having to pick and choose because the recorder only had so many slots in its memory….

We lived in that house for ten years and over that time we swapped the ‘analogue’ cable box for a ‘digital’ one with better picture quality, we moved from a VHS video cassette player/recorder to a DVD player and then a DVD player/recorder. We swapped the big, bulky CRT television for a flat-screen LCD, although we still had the CRT sets in the kitchen and bedroom for a bit longer, and it wasn’t possible to get the cable channels on either of those sets.

By the time we moved out, NTL had become Virgin Media and the video recorder was no longer needed because there was a hard disk built into the set-top box that could record multiple channels at once (I forget how many). And it was possible by that time to rent “On Demand” films without having to go to the DVD rental place—they just came through the cable. There was other “On Demand” content too, box-sets of some TV series and, most notably, the BBC iPlayer, which had launched as a website in 2007 and was also available on the set-top box.

But if you wanted to watch a film without having to pay for it every time the only way to do that remained owning a physical media copy—although we’d moved past bulky VHS cassettes to sleek, slim DVDs by then.

And what about the internet? When I moved to Northampton in 1999, if you wanted to use the internet, then it meant you couldn’t use the phone, since the internet came down the phone line at an amazing 56kbps. We had a PC in the spare bedroom upstairs and I had to run a telephone extension down the staircase skirting board to connect it to the internet.

About the time we got a digital television box from NTL we also got an “always-on” cable modem, which I think from memory ran at a whopping 1Mbps—that was even faster than the 512kbps we got at work through our ISDN line. By the time we left, we had 20Mbps “fibre” broadband, which was amazing! And Wifi! We didn’t even have to plug the laptop into the cable modem!

In late 2010 we moved into a ‘new build’ property and the virgin cable service wasn’t available in that area, so we moved to Sky’s satellite service for our television service instead. By now the old analogue TV signals broadcast locally had been turned off in favour of a new digital service and the reception in our area was very, very poor without a huge great ariel on the roof, so I figured may as well have a small dish on the wall instead and get more channels anyway.

This also meant moving away from Virgin’s fibre internet to copper wire broadband and a speed drop down to 8Mbps. But that was sufficient if I’m honest. I mean, it’s not like we were watching tons and tons of video over it. A bit of YouTube here and there. The iPlayer catch-up sometimes, but you could get those shows through the Sky box where they were downloaded to the hard disk, so fast internet wasn’t really an issue.

I can’t remember exactly when we moved from copper wire broadband to fibre broadband but it must have been sometime around 2015/16 or so because we got “FTTP”, or Fibre to the Cabinet, at around the same time we moved from “regular” Sky+ to Sky Q – a platform that, while still getting the “live” TV signals from the dish, included a host of “apps” to stream content from various providers when weren’t Sky, such as BBC, ITV etc. Sky Q also uses your home WiFi network to “beam” the live TV pictures to “Mini” boxes around the house, meaning we were finally back in a position where we could watch TV in bed on a Sunday morning – just like the “good old days” when all you needed was the metal ariel that came with your “portable” TV set.

An aside – it’s mad to think we thought of those old 14-inch Cathode Ray Tubes as “portable” – they still weighed a ton and it was a real struggle if you wanted to put them up somewhere high, such as on top of a chest of drawers. These days, even our 55-inch main set in the lounge weighs less than one of those tiny screen CRTs.

But it’s the apps that were the real game changer – and not just on Sky Q, but on the little streaming sticks dotted around the house too. No more waiting for a programme to be broadcast. No more making sure you record it to either your VHS, DVD or HDD if you couldn’t watch it live. Now it’s all on-demand content – watch when you like – when it suits.

Other than live sport – which you can still get on demand but obviously isn’t the same if you already know the result – I couldn’t tell you the last time I watched something regularly when it was broadcast. There is just no need anymore to organise your life around the TV schedules – now the TV schedule fits around your life, which has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

But’s it not just catch-up services, is it? BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub (or ITVX as it soon will be), All 4, My5 and Sky Catch-up are all fighting for your attention with the likes of (and forgive me if I miss any) Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+, Lionsgate+ Discovery+, Apple TV+, BritBox and more. (That’s a lot of “+”s, isn’t it?)

And all of those services release new content that you can’t find on “linear” TV at all, and they do it all the time.

There’s so much content and not enough hours to even get close to watching even a fraction of it.

We are literally spoiled for choice. But how on earth do you even begin to choose? Sometimes, it feels daunting just deciding which app to open – and that’s even before you get close to choosing something to watch.

Let’s face it – life was so much simpler when we had a handful of channels to choose from and you had to watch what was on, when it was on, or you just missed it.

And yet, there’s a lot to be said for being able to watch what you want, when you want. Instant on-demand access to pretty much anything you want. Not everything, but pretty much anything.

Listening to music has had the same changes. From vinyl to tape, to CD and then MP3 – and now most of the music I listen to is streamed via Spotify and I have access to pretty much any song ever recorded, anytime I want. Hell, if I’m in the car, I can just yell “Hey GOOGLE, play xxx” and it does. (I have to yell – I’ve got my music on and you don’t play music in the car quietly)

Yes, the landscape for “consuming media” in 2022 is so far removed from what it was at the turn of the millennium that I doubt many of us would have believed it was possible if someone back then had told us how things were going to be.

I wonder where we’ll be in another twenty-two years’ time.

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